Matt Elam brings the pain…and hits like this get flagged in the NFL.
Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
At this time of year there is ample discussion over which players the Lions should target in the first couple of rounds of the draft. The list is very lengthy, with at least 5 viable candidates for the #5 pick and as many as 15 legitimate choices for the 36th pick.
I thought it might be easier and more pertinent to rule out players that are either schematic or personality misfits for the Lions in the first two rounds. There are a couple of positions that are ruled out by lack of need: quarterback and running back. I won’t argue that the Lions need to add a speed back to the mix, but there is a glut of free agent running backs and several later-round options that make a lot more sense than burning yet another high pick on yet another running back. Tight end is not a pressing need either, so long as Tony Scheffler isn’t a cap casualty.
Safety is a priority need, however. And one safety that is likely to come off in the early second round is Matt Elam from Florida. This is a player the Lions should pass, certainly that high in the draft. Elam is a safety who would have thrived in an earlier era, the time of Steve Atwater and Lawyer Milloy. Like those All Pros, Elam is a heat-seeking missile of a hitter with great power and a flair for the dramatic hit. He drops his head and dives for the kill shot several times a game. Unfortunately those hits are now penalties in today’s NFL. His coverage instincts and range are more on par with Ricardo Silva than a good starter. One of the things Coaches Schwartz and Cunningham want is interchangeable safeties, guys that can both cover and play the run. Elam doesn’t fit that bill. It doesn’t mean he won’t be a decent player in the NFL, but he would not make a decent player with this Lions team. Also, I haven’t finished breaking down his games yet to give him a draft rating, but my inclination on what I’ve seen so far tells me he’s a third round talent at best. He will not last beyond the top 50.
Another player who will draw some attention with the pick at the top of the second round is North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper, if he even lasts that long. I suspect he will, but that is not a given. Teams are going to love his athleticism, quickness, and movement skills as a guard. But the Lions don’t do a lot of pulling, trapping, or use lots of zone running principles that highlight those skills. The Lions are looking to get more functionally physical up front, to dominate the line of scrimmage and become tougher to play against between the tackles. Cooper is going to be a very good NFL player, I have little doubt of that, but what he offers does not blend well with the job opening the Lions are seeking to fill. Aside from my general chagrin of spending any picks before Saturday on a guard, getting Cooper just doesn’t make a lot of sense schematically. I’d much rather draft a guy like Kentucky’s Larry Warford at the top of the third as a guard, or one of the next tier of tackles like Jordan Mills, Terron Armstead or David Bakhtiari in the third and move Riley Reiff to guard for a season or two. That better aligns with Scott Linehan’s offense and Jim Schwartz’s vision for the team going forward.
The Lions might also be tempted to pounce on the de facto replacement for Titus Young with that 36th overall pick. I’m not fundamentally opposed to that concept, though it is not the choice I would make. Picking the right fit is paramount, and one player who projects in that range that does not fit well is Robert Woods. The USC product has great hands and good toughness, and his footwork on routes is well-developed. He lacks field-stretching speed and does not handle press coverage well, however. What does that mean for Detroit? It means that he will not pull safeties away from Calvin Johnson on the other side or get that extra defender out of the box against the run. Young did that, albeit briefly, and it made the Stafford/Megatron combination even more lethal and effective. Woods will make a nice number two receiver somewhere, but the skills he offers do not necessarily mesh well with the kind of player the Lions need at that spot. He’s a bit of a reach at 36 overall, and the Lions would be very wise to keep their arms inside the car and let the Woods ride come to a complete stop a few picks later. I want lid-lifting speed and downfield playmaking, someone who makes 3 catches for 80 yards instead of someone who catches 5 passes for 60 yards, which is what I see Woods producing in the NFL. I’d rather take Markus Wheaton or Terrance Williams, one of whom just might be on the board a round later.